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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Tactical Analysis: United’s plan was doomed from the start

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About three minutes before halftime Erling Haaland found himself free of any Manchester United defenders about one meter away from United’s goal with an easy lobbed cross coming towards him. It was the tap-in of all tap-ins, a chance that even you or I would fancy ourselves to convert; surely Erling Haaland would finish this easily.

Somehow Haaland – in what may have even defied the laws of physics – missed.

It was at that point you would have been forgiven for saying, “Maybe this really is Manchester United’s day?”

It was not to be. United lost 3-1 to their crosstown rivals making it the second time in the last three years City have done the double over their neighbors. The scoreline flattered United at best and was fair at worst.

No one expected United to get a result in this match let alone grab a win. Despite City’s struggles this season United have been way worse. There were only three starters missing to injury but the lack of depth was astonishing. United’s performances heading into this match have been dreadful. There was little confidence that Erik Ten Hag could muster something up.

Yet United went into halftime with a 1-0 lead. With a quarter of an hour to go they were still clinging to a 1-1 draw. Two late back-breaking goals gave the appearance that United had come to the Ethiad with a solid plan and came awfully close to seeing it out.

In reality, they came much closer to a result than their plan ever anticipated. United stayed in the match based on nothing more than grit and determination. They needed those attributes because the tactical plan from Erik Ten Hag didn’t give them any chance to win and only a very little chance of coming away with a point.

Things started out positively for United. Given the injury constraints, Ten Hag set the team up probably the best way he could. Bruno Fernandes played up top as a false-9 with Scott McTominay in behind as the number 10. This allowed Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho to return to their best positions on the left and right wing respectively.

Seven minutes into the match Andre Onana went long from a goal kick over the top of City’s high defensive line. Makeshift striker Bruno Fernandes got in behind to bring the ball down, then displayed a rare bit of brilliant hold-up play with his back to goal. Scott McTominay made a forward run to drag two City defenders deep, opening up space for Rashford to come off the wing. Bruno laid the ball off and Rashford hit a beauty to give United a shock lead.

With United holding a lead eight minutes into the match their plan for the rest of the game seemed to be, to defend this lead for the next 82 minutes. It wasn’t long before this looked like the last five minutes of the 2008 Champions League semifinal when United were trying to hold on against Barcelona – only they were trying to do this for well over an hour.

The game state would typically have an effect on this. You can’t sit back and defend a lead if you don’t have a lead. However, the truth is nothing really changed for United after the goal. We’ll focus today on the first seven minutes of the match to show that tactically, this is what United’s plan always was.


United have had success at the Etihad in recent years. They won in back-to-back years in 2019-20 and 2020-21 as well as winning a leg of the League Cup semifinal but going out on aggregate. In all those matches United had a similar plan: defend as a unit, stay compact, absorb pressure, and look to hit City on the counterattack. Even if they did all that well, they were still going to need to get a little lucky!

Dropping deep in a low block and looking to spring counterattacks is not a bad strategy when coming to the Etihad. It’s actually probably the best strategy you could have given the current squad.

When we think of a low block we typically think of a 4-4-2 formation. that. You can play a low block with a back three or back five, or even with a 4-3-3. The formation doesn’t really matter so much as you get the actual “block” part. On Sunday United never had that.

From the opening kickoff, United showed their hand. They weren’t going to pressure the back line. Rather they’d sit back and stay compact in their shape. They were also going to play a 4-2-4 shape. Ok.

Again, the formation doesn’t really matter so much as you stay in your block and move as a unit. But very quickly it became clear United wouldn’t be doing that. Their base defense was this 4-2-4 formation but then they were going to start manning up and moving where their men dictated.

90 seconds into the match City had already figured out how to move the ball forward against United. United never fully committed to staying in this shape, or breaking away and chasing men down. So when City were looking at a compact United shape, all they had to do was lure them out of that shape. Pass the ball backward a bit, and eventually, those players in the front line start running and trying to close down defenders.

This gets everyone else to start running and creates openings all over the place.

Erik Ten Hag’s defensive system is built on winning your 1v1 matchups – it’s what makes the absences of Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw stick out more. If you don’t win your 1v1 matchup it creates problems for the rest of the team because if everyone else is worried about their 1v1 matchup, there may not be someone to back you up and help you out.

That goes against the entire “block” principle. If you want to defend as a block you have to do everything as a unit. You need to press as a unit, you need to shift as a unit, and you need to be willing and able to pass players off to your teammates so you can maintain your position.

United’s defense on Sunday was too much of a combination of both, leaving them with almost nothing. It was never clear whether they were trying to stay as a compact unit or follow their man. 102 seconds into the match the ball came out to Kyle Walker who played a diagonal ball down the left wing. Look who’s back at right back to defend it for United, striker Bruno Fernandes.

The result was gaps all over the pitch and unmarked City players constantly finding pockets of space. What it seemed like United were trying to do was stay compact in a narrow 4-2-4/4-4-2 and leave space on the wings – not a bad plan considering that’s where City are least likely to hurt you.

But even with United clogging the middle City knows how to open it up. Go backward, and get United’s front line to start chasing the ball. A simple pass among the back line quickly turns United’s shape from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3.

From there, work the ball over the wide man whom United are giving space to, then take advantage of United’s unconventional shape.

Nathan Ake moves the ball over to Jeremy Doku on the left touchline. Diogo Dalot has to come out to mark Doku. That leaves Garnacho in a state of limbo. Does he come over to the touchline to help out Dalot? A winger would typically do that, while a midfielder picks up the man behind him. Except United don’t have a midfielder there, which leaves Kevin de Bruyne – the most dangerous man on the pitch – unmarked.

It’s a simple pass from Doku to De Bruyne who gets to the edge of the box easily. It’s only some last-ditch defending that keeps United safe.

With United giving space on the wings, it was easy for City to get the ball deep into United territory. Once the ball got deep, the midfield line would collapse down into the box. With at least two of the front four often pushing higher onto the defenders this created a gap between the back eight and front two. This meant once again, even when United looked organized, someone as dangerous as Kevin de Bruyne could find plenty of space in a very dangerous area.

With United sort of matching up man-to-man and playing a block, City would often push center-back John Stones up high, while dropping their central midfielder Rodri back into the defensive line. This created matchup issues for United and often resulted in Stones being unmarked, which led to more last-ditch defending.

As for Rodri, dropping into the back line pulled him away from United’s defenders and allowed him to dictate the entire match. He completed 100 passes (out of 111), made 23 progressive passes, had eight shot-creating actions, and two assists.

As City maintained possession they were able to keep moving the ball from side to side until they got United moving. United would try to regroup but often end up in weird shapes. Here United are in almost a 5-1-4 shape with Diogo Dalot so far wide he’s not pictured. Again, despite United staying compact, City still has multiple players unmarked, including Stones in the middle of the field.

With just one pass across the back four, City can pull McTominay away from Stones, causing a chain reaction. Now Raphael Varane has to step out of line to make sure someone is with Stones.

In a situation like this where United stays in shape and fills in for each other, City doesn’t panic. They just pass the ball around and back up a little bit more. Eventually United will start running towards them and gaps will open. United survived because of Jonny Evans making a great play in a 1v1 situation.

Here’s a similar situation a half hour later. United are back in their shape, playing narrow. In this case, City don’t need to move the ball around the back to create space. They already have time and space on the ball and, as United typically do, they’ve left the wideman open.

Here one simple pass out wide will get defenders rushing to the outside to follow the ball. As soon as the ball is played Lindelof comes out wide while Casemiro goes to fill in for him. Garnacho also follows the ball to Foden leaving both Rodri and De Bruyne free.

One square pass to Rodri suddenly makes it a simple pass to De Bruyne who has now bypassed three defenders.

Lindelof does well to recover forcing De Bruyne to shoot with his weak foot and he pulls the shot wide.

Compare how United’s front line “pressed” City in this match versus how they did it back in December of 2019. Here United’s forwards don’t so much press, as much step up and guide the ball where they want it to go.

There’s intent and purpose behind this. Despite not having the ball United are able to maintain some control here because they’re forcing the ball to go where they want it to go. They want it to go to Raheem Sterling so they can take advantage of the Sterling vs Aaron Wan-Bissaka matchup.

They forced City to attack the way they wanted City to attack. Therefore, despite City taking 22 shots, United held them to just 0.09 xG per shot. They didn’t get great opportunities.

On Sunday, United’s front four just looked like they were chasing the ball for the sake of chasing the ball. There was no modicum of control. Everything United did defensively seemed to be a last-second reaction to what City was doing. Raphael Varane and Jonny Evans were sensational on Sunday. They had to be. If they were anything less, United would have conceded six. City ended up with an xG per shot of 0.12. Their average on the season is 0.11.

Manchester City made 109 progressive passes. That’s 37 more than United have allowed in a single match over the last three seasons (72 against Liverpool in December). City successfully entered United’s box 43 times, the most United have conceded in a game since 2017-18 when the FBref data became available.

Those numbers tell you how deep United was playing. City made that many progressive passes because United were allowing them to freely move the ball forward. Their entire defensive plan was to fall back into the box and essentially defend the Alamo.

That in turn negated any chance of United going forward. A counter-attacking plan was always going to be tough with McTominay and Garnacho – who hasn’t been great on the counter – making up two of your front four, but there weren’t really any other options and it was still the best option. But in order to give it any chance of working, they have to actually be up the pitch.

Too often United would get so compact that they had everyone near the box. Here, 10 of United’s 11 players are all defending deep. If United win the ball back, who are they playing an outlet to?

As would often happen, as players started getting dragged out of position others would have to get back and help out. Here Bruno Fernandes gets back and can clear the ball out.

Here’s the problem. That’s striker Bruno Fernandes clearing the ball. Who is he clearing the ball to then? You need him to be further up the field to receive this clearance so you can mount a counterattack.

When Bruno launches this ball forward, United have nine outfield players in the box. Who’s mounting a counterattack? Of course the ball just rolls harmlessly to City’s back line to recycle possession.

Again if you go back to 2019 – a match played with a similar deep line – there are still players up the field to collect the ball after a clearance.

The outlets are still high up the pitch so when the opportunity comes, they’re ready to counter.

If United wanted to counterattack in this match, they needed to leave people higher up the pitch. Instead, everyone dropped deep so the opportunity was never there.

United’s attacking tactics never made any sense (though this is giving them the benefit of the doubt that they even had an attacking plan). United’s one goal came from playing direct route one football. When United had a goal kick down a goal in the 91st minute, you’d have thought they’d send everyone forward and see what they could do. Instead, they tried to play out from the back.

Naturally, that didn’t end well.

United took their third shot of the match in the 99th minute. That’s indicative of how little a plan they had going forward.

When you look at the numbers United conceded like touches in the box, progressive passes, or box entries there is only one match in the last seven seasons that compares to Sunday: United’s 3-1 win over Arsenal in December of 2017.

That match is best remembered for David de Gea standing on his head. He made a Premier League record 14 saves that day to give United three points that they absolutely did not deserve.

The difference between that game and Sunday? At the Emirates United still managed to take eight shots for 1.8 xG – that’s eight very good shots. They gave themselves the opportunity to score two or three goals. That put them in a position where they could possibly win a match where they conceded 4.7 xG should a miracle happen – which one did.

On Sunday United had no plan for how to score goals other than launch it forward and inshallah. The plan they had never even gave them an opportunity for a miracle to happen.

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